The Arts Council Sounds Off On…The Devil in the White City

By David A. Brensilver

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (2004, Vintage Books) had been on my stack of books “to read” for some time – years, to be sure – for no other reason than other titles seemed to require more immediate attention each time I finished one book and argued with myself over what to read next.

As I made more and more trips to Chicago, to visit friends who relocated there a few years ago, the spine of Larson’s book seemed to be scolding me, or maybe that was my guilt.

A few weeks ago (at the time of this writing), Larson was interviewed by Terry Gross on her NPR program, Fresh Air, about his latest book, In the Garden of Beasts. Conveniently, I was a handful of pages from the end of Camus’ A Happy Death, which I finished that night, clearing the way for The Devil in the White City.

Upon its publication, the book, which is “about the architect who led the construction of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and the prolific serial killer who used the fair as a lure,” as described on the author’s website ( received glorious reviews that championed the narrative style in which Larson presents historic information.

That’s the point, isn’t it? I thought, reading the blurbs in and on my copy of The Devil in the White City.

The point is that when it’s accomplished, it’s worth celebrating.

The Devil in the White City is a masterly word-picture that tells an incredible story that just happens to be true. Where memorable novels mine extraordinary imaginations, The Devil in the White City examines those of the architect, Daniel Burnham, and the murderer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, presenting an almost unbelievable account in remarkable detail ornamented with Larson’s accessible and often humorous voice.

The following passage had me out of my chair:

“The wind picked up motes of sand that stung their cheeks and forced them to shield their eyes. They stumbled over the frozen ground, Hunt wincing from gout, cursing, disbelieving; Olmsted, his teeth inflamed, his night an ordeal of wakefulness, limping from his long-ago carriage accident. The lake was gray, darkening to a band of black at the horizon. The only color in the vicinity was the frost rouge on the men’s cheeks and the blue of Burnham’s and Olmsted’s eyes.”

How does he know? I asked myself rhetorically, despite the fact that I’d appreciated the wealth of sources Larson cited at the end of the book.

It isn’t that he knows, I thought, it’s that he went to the trouble of knowing.

Learn more about The Devil in the White City and Erik Larson at the author’s website,

David Bresilver is the editor of The Arts Paper.


One comment

  1. […] a year ago, in July 2012, I described Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that […]

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